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February 2008

Rochester Raging Rhinos:
the most successful franchise in sports?

The biggest thing in the city of Rochester is not the world headquarters of Eastman Kodak, or Bausch & Lomb, or Xerox, but a modest baseball stadium downtown called Frontier Field which from May to October is the home of the most successful minor league team in the country and perennial A-League soccer champs: the Rochester Raging Rhinos.

“It truly has been an incredible story here in Rochester,” says Chris Economides, vice president and general manager of the team, which has boasted sellout crowds from its very first season almost a decade ago, more than any other A-League team, more than all but four teams in Major League Soccer (MLS).

“Incredible,” said flamboyant former MLS star and current Los Angeles Galaxy general manager Alexi Lalas. “That’s the kind of atmosphere we should have at every MLS game.”

That’s why Economides and his two partners, Frank DuRoss and boyhood friend Steve Donner, shot for an MLS franchise that would bring the first major league team to the city. That involved a commitment of at least $30 million for a 20,000-seat stadium and an expansion fee of another $20 million to MLS. Even with contributions from the state and county, that saddled the Rhinos with major league financial burdens, but Economides was confident the move was both financially-sound and a natural progression for the team.

“We were looking at this long-term,” says the native of Rochester, who previously owned an indoor soccer team in Kansas City. “First, we were doing this for the betterment of the city. This would be Rochester’s only true major league franchise. Second, we were banking on the value of the franchise going up. The MLS franchises when they first started were five million dollars; the last two franchises have sold for twenty million.”

The Rhinos success story began, ironically, at a baseball game a few years ago where Economides and Donner were in the stands watching one of Donner’s daughters play.

“We sat through seven innings and it was a beautiful night out,” Economides remembers. “And we said to ourselves, ‘You mean to tell me for soccer, which is much more exciting than baseball, that we couldn’t draw 3000-4000 fans a game?’ We said, ‘Let’s try it.’”

Both Donnor and DuRoss already owned hockey and lacrosse teams, and Economides knew the available talent from the indoor soccer league, so it was a natural fit and the partners then applied for a franchise with the A-League. They got it and announced the happy event--on the day of the O.J. Simpson verdict.

“As a matter of fact, we thought we’d be cursed because, obviously, when you announce something of that magnitude, you want as much coverage as possible, and obviously we took a back seat that day to the O.J. verdict,” Economides recalls.

The team had an equally-bumpy start to their first season in 1996: they lost their opener before 5,834 fans at the University of Rochester’s Fauver Stadium and won only one game out of nine starts.

But then on July 12, the team inaugurated Frontier Field, and before an A-League record 14,717 fans, the Rhinos beat Montreal 3-2 on a last-minute hat trick and then marched to a four-game winning streak, won the next 10 of 13 matches, reached the playoffs and nearly clinched the championship.

That first season the Rhinos also shocked the MLS by beating their league-leading Tampa Bay Mutiny in the U.S. Open Cup, the oldest soccer tournament in the United States, and then shutting out the Colorado Rapids 3-0 before 12,179 jubilant fans at Frontier Field.

“It was a storybook start and sort of got the ball rolling,” says Economides.
A former employee at Eastman Kodak and former owner restaurant owner, Economides got his start in sports playing basketball at Rochester’s Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church, one of the churches that serves the over-10,000 Greeks in the city. His father, Symos, had been a teacher in northern Greece (from a town called Drosopirgi) and had taught in Rochester schools for thirty years (“He probably taught nine-tenths of the Greeks in Rochester,” says Economides), but his son was a sports fanatic.

“I’ve always loved sports, loved hockey, soccer,” he says. “It was a lifelong dream to be involved in sports. So when the opportunity to be in the ownership of a team came along, I followed my dream.”

His first try in Kansas City in the indoor soccer league was a misfire. His Kansas City Attack won the championship but lost money and he folded the franchise after two years and returned to Rochester and the restaurant business.

Shortly afterwards, he had the fateful meeting with old pal Steve Donner at the baseball game and the Rhinos were born. The franchise started with one phone and a heater to keep the office warm, and now has dozens of employees and its own office building.

It also has one of the savviest marketing plans in sports. Soccer retailer Umbro is the official supplier of the club and the team logo of a charging rhino with a soccer ball stuck on his horn is one of the top-sellers in the sport. Games are broadcast on radio and on TV locally through the Empire Sports Network and coast-to-coast on the Prime Network.

“In Tampa, we pretty much fell off the front page of the sports section,” says former Tampa Bay goalie Billy Andracki. “But this area, in the time that I’ve been here, has given the most coverage to soccer that I’ve seen. All these TV cameras are out to the practices.”

Economides agrees that the Rhinos are prime time in Rochester.

“We are the consummate big fish in a small pond here and the perception from day one has been that,” he says.

The success of the team was helped by Economides’ soccer background and recruiting, which has produced winning records and a championship in three years, and which has fostered a team spirit rare in a sport in America that is often played by soccer gypsies.

Former team goalie Andracki was an All-American at Rutgers before joining the Tampa Bay Rowdies of the American Professional Soccer League, then playing with the league’s Atlanta franchise, then indoors with Cleveland and Tampa Bay again, then joining the Rhinos for summer play.

“Of all the teams I’ve played for, this is the best in terms of treating you as a professional,” he says. “Chris (Economides) and (Coach) Pat (Ercoli) are more personal and up-front than any general manager or coach I’ve dealt with. And in this sport, I know so many guys who go to teams and when paycheck time comes, there’s no paycheck.”

The Rhinos lost their first opportunity to join the MLS because they ran out of time to organize the financing for a stadium and the franchise fee the MLS requires, but Economides says the club kept plugging for a shot at a major league franchise and a soccer stadium. It did a feasibility study of the project and obtained a promise from the city for the land to build the stadium right behind the current Frontier Field.

Once the financing was secure, all that remained was for the MLS to approve and the statements from the league were encouraging.

“What’s going on in Rochester is extraordinary,” said MLS commissioner Doug Logan at the time. “If they can get the stadium, they’re a real expansion candidate.”

Economides is always confident of his team’s drawing power.

“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had fans come up to me and say, ‘I wasn’t a soccer fan, but I came to a game and now I’m hooked,’” he relates. “We transformed a lot of the casual fans into soccer fans. It’s not just a game now, it’s an actual event.”

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